Realism and idealism in International Criminal Law

To maximise its impact on society, International Criminal Justice would benefit from a greater degree of realism: accepting its limitations and embracing its expressivist function. This is what Prof. Carsten Stahn, Chair of International Criminal Law and Global Justice at Leiden University and Director of the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, argues in his inaugural lecture on Monday 31 October.

Expectations

Prof. Carsten Stahn, Chair of International Criminal Law and Global Justice at Leiden University and Director of the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies

Prof. Carsten Stahn, Chair of International Criminal Law and Global Justice at Leiden University and Director of the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies

The traditional vision according to which it is possible to create a better world through courts is increasingly coming under question. According to Prof. Stahn, this legitimacy crisis makes it possible to critically reflect on weak points, and greatly improve international justice institutions. “The public faith in the work of the courts must be justified by concrete results. The sheer visibility of international courts creates high expectations from victims and local communities. The dilemma is how to reconcile these expectations with the modest contribution of the courts.”


Realism

The answer lies, according to Stahn, in openly acknowledging the existing limitations and embracing the expressivist function of international justice institutions. A legacy of frankness that can be partly traced back to the Nuremberg trials. “In my lecture, I examine the tension between facts and faith on three levels: effectiveness, fairness and truth-finding.” His conclusion is that the great power of international courts lies not so much in their quantitative impact but in their qualitative role in setting a moral and legal example.

Idealism

Consider the current situation in Libya or other civil wars: “In order to portray the facts with fairness, the International Criminal Court must look at both sides: not only the violence of the régime, but also the rebel violence.” And this under great pressure from politics. Think of the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death. This highlights what local institutions can learn from international courts: “The importance of impartiality, greater transparency in proceedings, sensitivity to restorative justice. Essentially, more idealism.”

Dialogue

Stahn is the recipient of the prestigious Ciardi prize, and currently runs two large NWO-funded projects: ‘Post-Conflict Justice and Local Ownership’ and ‘Jus Post Bellum’. The key theme in his work is dialogue: between the international and domestic justice institutions, between academia and legal practice (his years of experience working for the ICC come in very useful) and finally between the various disciplines that underpin this unique Chair in the Netherlands. “By relating International Criminal Law to methods and ideas from social sciences we can make more fundamental inquiries into the nature of international justice and thus broaden our vision.” The magnificent view from his office on the 12th floor in Den Haag should help him maintain this essential wider perspective.

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Last Modified: 25-01-2012